Matt Hancock, the new Secretary of State for Digital, Culture, Media & Sport, has pledged to "always fight to protect and promote" charities.
In his first major speech about the voluntary sector since his promotion earlier this month, Hancock told delegates at the Charity Commission’s annual public meeting in London yesterday that charities played a vital role in society, but could also play a vital role in developing government policy.
"All charities that operate on the ground make a valuable contribution," he said. "You are often the life-blood of our communities. I pledge today that I will always fight to protect and promote you. But I also want to see charities playing a strategic role in our social policy and practice."
Hancock, who has been MP for West Sussex since 2010, was made the culture secretary as part of Prime Minister Theresa May’s reshuffle earlier this month. He replaced Karen Bradley, who became Northern Ireland secretary.
In a previous role as Cabinet Office minister, Hancock attempted to introduce a clause in all government grant agreements that would prevent charities from using the funds for lobbying.
The policy was subsequently put on hold before being significantly watered down after pressure from voluntary sector bodies.
In his speech yesterday, Hancock said he believed the charity sector was becoming more transparent.
"I believe we are on the path towards a more transparent charity sector with higher standards of integrity," he said. "And this is important, because I see an opportunity for the sector to take a major step up in its role.
"These improvements to governance and funding must continue, because I want us to focus on our time ahead as an opportunity to work together and improve people’s lives."
The annual public meeting also afforded charities the opportunity to question members of the Charity Commission’s workforce.
In response to a question on how diversity across the charity sector could be improved, Sarah Atkinson, director of policy and communications at the commission, said it was important that action to improve diversity was framed as providing opportunities to under-represented groups, rather than excluding older, white men from boards.
"It is incredibly important that, while we highlight the need for trustee boards to be more inclusive and draw from a diverse pool, we don’t end up saying to trustees who are older, who are male or who are white that their contribution is not important," she said.
"It isn’t about saying we want less of you, but about saying that we want to open up opportunities to others. In that spirit, if we continue to participate in the conversation, that’s how we can encourage the sector to recognise the benefits and have proper conversations about the benefits of inclusiveness at trustee level.
"I hope we can approach that in the spirit of open contribution, rather than tell the sector what to do."
Helen Stephenson, chief executive of the Charity Commission, told the conference that she wanted the commission to be more accessible to charities, but could not make the necessary changes within its existing funding settlement.
She confirmed that a consultation on the prospect of charities being charged to help fund the regulator would be started in the spring, once it had received cross-government clearance.